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Some people challenge the application of systems thinking (ST) to improving the leadership process. They consider this grand, unnecessarily complicating, or jargonistic. ‘Can’t we just call it holistic’, some say. Here is a response to that charge: Background to systems thinking Before coming onto leadership, here is the relevant background about ST. It is a loose meta-discipline like mathematics, comprising hundreds of sub-specialisms, methodologies, brands and tools. It is therefore suited to imaginative adaptation to a range of worthwhile applications. ST practitioners come from many backgrounds and ‘camps’, and the discipline’s flexibility shows up in their competing vigorously for their own version of the ‘truth’ while appropriating aspects of ST that help their cause, core business or brand. The late W. Edwards Deming, still a powerful influence today and thought of by many as one of the father figures of ST, didn’t himself use the term until late in life when having spent time with Russell Ackoff, an unchallenged ST pioneer. Deming instead preferred to speak of ‘continuous improvement’. He came from the total quality movement after the second world war, having earlier worked in the US on productivity issues.
Before acquiring its relatively modern term, systems thinking’s origins did not lie in quality but in fields such as cybernetics, going back to the early 20th century. Some true systems thinkers still shun Deming because he was in the ‘wrong’ camp; others have climbed onto the modern bandwagon. The term ‘systems thinking’ gained popular and generic status in the 1970s. ST was considered especially useful for non-convergent issues, sometimes known as wicked or messy problems. Methodologies and language were increasingly corrupted and adapted, in part reflecting the shift towards a service economy. The approach received a boost from Peter Senge when he referred to ‘systems thinking’ as The Fifth Discipline (1990). Senge describes systems thinking as “a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing inter-relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots”.
Systems thinking today can be thought of as spanning two main applications or aims. The first is efficiency. This was and is the main interest of the continuous improvement camp. It spawned the ‘lean’ movement. It is applied primarily in the field of production, originally manufacturing and its offshoots, and builds on the Toyota Production System, particularly the work of Taiichi Ohno. The ideas were imported from Japan to the USA by Deming, an American, who worked in Japan from 1950. Another key figure at this time was Walter A. Shewart, a statistician, who Deming collaborated with from 1938 and espoused and built on his ideas. A prime concern of the continuous improvement body is driving out unplanned and unwanted costly variation in repetitive operational systems. When using this method, the boundaries of the system for analysis purposes need to be tightly circumscribed (a ‘closed’ system) in a transactional environment.
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